Part of the job of federal departments such as Transportation, Health and Human Services, and the Environmental Protection Agency is to disseminate information to the masses.
Much of their work—warning about the dangers of texting while driving, the Zika virus, or the effects of hydraulic fracking on drinking water — is vital to shaping consumer behavior. It’s also a key revenue source for many agencies in Washington, DC.
Yet with Inauguration Day only a month away, and President-elect Donald Trump having promised to cut government spending, federal departments are bracing for a new reality that will include having to defend their communications budgets — and the messages that drive it.
"Federal agencies spending money on public affairs will have to show how those funds are being used and develop tools to measure the success of those programs and present those reports to Congress," says Gloria Story Dittus, chairman of Story Partners. "If they can make a strong, convincing case that funding is necessary and valuable to both the congressional and the administration agenda, you will see that funding stay in place. But in an era of fiscal tightening, those that can’t make a good case will lose funding."
Many departments may face budget cuts, given that many issues that were priorities under President Barack Obama are sure to be reevaluated under President Donald Trump.
For instance, the EPA has fought to raise awareness about and reduce climate change in partnership with environmental groups such as Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation. Those efforts will very likely be curtailed under designated incoming EPA chief Scott Pruitt, the attorney general of Oklahoma appointed by Trump to lead the agency last week. He has been a vocal skeptic of human activity’s impact on climate change. (On his LinkedIn page, Pruitt describes himself as "a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda)."
The federal government has spent about $1 billion annually over the past decade on advertising and PR contracts, according to the Government Accountability Office’s public relations spending report, released in September. The Department of Defense accounts for more than 60% of that.
That number was down slightly to $909 million in 2015. PR accounted for $111 million, or 14% of the total expenditure. In 2014 and 2013, PR’s share of the federal marcomms spending pie was 11.5% and 11%, respectively, meaning its share has been growing in size.
During his campaign for the presidency, Trump promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, though since his election, he has turned to many Washington insiders for key roles in his administration and cabinet. Yet many believe he will follow through on trimming the size of the federal workforce.
Experts say a hiring freeze is a strong possibility, as is attrition in some departments caused by staffers who would have been forced to go against long-held beliefs if they were to stay. Those defections could include communications staffers.
The GAO report found that from fiscal years 2006 through 2014, there were on average 4,900 federal PR employees, accounting for 0.3% of the total federal government civilian workforce.
Some agencies have significantly staffed up on PR employees over the years, including the Department of the Interior and the EPA, two departments the Trump administration is expected to target. From 2006 to 2014, the size of the Interior Department’s comms team jumped 23% to 295, while the EPA’s increased by 16% to 165.
They're not alone. The Department of Veterans Affairs had 286 staffers in its comms function in 2014, up 99% versus 2006 and the Department of Homeland Security had 176, up 61% over the same period.
Dittus notes that federal government employees know how to use the bureaucracy of government to counteract the efforts of political appointees, meaning some existing campaigns will not be canned overnight.
"You hear stories of federal government employees who say to political staff, ‘You know, I was here long before you came and I’ll be here long after you leave,’" she says. "Members of the permanent bureaucracy can certainly slow that process of change until there is another administration."
Proving campaign effectiveness
Before Marissa Padilla joined Global Strategy Group as a VP this past October, she worked in comms for both the departments of Health and Human Services and Transportation. She notes the value of media relations, saying, "Departments rely heavily on earned media efforts. A lot of our efforts at both [Health and Human Services] and [Transportation] were driven by career public affairs employees and with guidance from a much smaller group of political appointees."
While Trump is campaigning for more accountability on government spending, Padilla says most departments have data to show the value of their expenditures. She notes that the Transportation Department's outreach on the dangers of distracted driving, for instance, have significantly raised awareness of texting while driving and prompted local and state governments to adopt laws and enforcement measures to prevent deadly crashes.
"A heightened transparency around comms efforts at federal agencies exists already, and they’re careful to spend those dollars wisely," Padilla says. "Federal agencies can show whether or not their efforts have been effective, and change course, if needed."
Other experts say federal agency communications work is inconsistent at best, and at worst, far more wasteful than in corporate America.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a professional in this business who couldn’t point to a recent campaign at the federal and even state level and say to themselves, ‘What on Earth are they trying to do here? What a colossal waste of money,’" says Doug Turner, partner at Agenda. "If the administration is looking at where they can save funds, they definitely should take a deep dive into the money spent on PR and comms."
Improving the agency-selection process
If the incoming Trump administration wants to force federal agencies to operate more like businesses, experts say it will put the procurement process for awarding advertising and PR contracts under the microscope.
Insiders say it often takes at least a year, and sometimes longer, for a department to put agencies through their paces and make a selection. And given the length of the process, departments often set up contracts for three, four, or five years so they can truly build a comms program with the selected firm.
Yet that timeframe doesn’t always lend itself to an effective use of communications dollars.
"An agency can end up with a multi-year contract set up on a mission that might have been really relevant and valuable in 2016 but is not as relevant or needed by 2020, but that is the hand they’ve been dealt because of the way the procurement process is set up," points out Dittus. "If the federal government can bring private-sector acumen to the process, the agencies will benefit, the taxpayers will benefit, and the constituencies will benefit."
A major concern: Access to information
Federal agencies base their communications campaigns on data. There is widespread concern among public affairs pros in Washington, DC, that the Trump administration will manipulate or hold back some data, including to third-party organizations and advocacy groups in education, civil rights, and the environment.
Amanda Deaver, president of Upstream Strategic Communications, says these groups rely on government data and disclosure to fulfill their missions. Yet organizations such as Planned Parenthood that oppose the Trump agenda might have a harder time getting access to the information they need, not to mention financial funding.
"At the end of the day, information is power, and those in control of the information have enormous power," she says. "I suspect [plenty of] use of Freedom of Information Act requests in order to obtain information that might otherwise be held back or released on a slower than usual timetable."